Puppet Princess (Karakuri no Kimi)

This is a typical OVA in some ways – violence and nudity (or the threat of rape being passed off as ‘comedic’), all predictable things about certain anime genres, some of which have certainly come to tire me after a couple decades.

Puppet Princess (Karakuri no Kimi) 2000

That isn’t to claim Puppet Princess is terrible, or that I think it’s impossible to take on serious themes in anime either, but Puppet Princess feels too casual with its application of that content for me.

I should talk about the story sooner or later – but first, Puppet Princess almost seems bit of a warm up for Karakuri Circus, especially when it comes to the puppetry (which was probably the best aspect of the anime).

An adaptation of Kazuhiro Fujita’s one-shot manga, it’s a straightforward but still at times exciting story of vengeance. Rangiku (the Puppet Princess) recruits warrior Manajiri and together they seek and eventually take on Lord Karimata, who murdered her family.

There are a few fun surprises, especially toward the end, and the art and animation works for me, though this 2000 OVA won’t deliver things you might be used to if you favour modern action sequences and techniques.

Is it worth chasing down?

Maybe if you’re a fan of Kazuhiro Fujita or the era of production perhaps, or just if you really love swords and shinobi.

3 Stars

Heaven Official’s Blessing (Tiān Guān Cì Fú)

I tend to be a little disappointed in romance anime that hold back on the developing the relationship onscreen – especially when it comes to homosexual relationships, but that’s probably not always fair.

Heaven Official’s Blessing (Tiān Guān Cì Fú) 2020

And I say ‘not fair’ not in terms of a discussion between chaste vs lewd content, but more a case that I wish the industry would treat the relationships of gay characters the same as heterosexual ones, though it feels like that’s changing slowly. 

Having said that, I think I should also add – I hope things continue to change in so long as it’s safe for the creators, that is. (Obviously, country of production has an impact).

But until things change, there’s still somewhat sweet shows like Heaven Official’s Blessing, based on the novel by Mo Xiang Tong Xiu and animated by Haoliners Animation League. I hadn’t seen many works from China at all, but this looks fantastic, with whimsical and menacing settings, fluid action and memorable leads.

Heaven Official’s Blessing feels like a balanced mix between supernatural action and almost cute romance, (with lead Xie Lian even taking on the clumsy ‘damsel’ role at times) and I enjoyed the mythological aspects as much as the character interplay across the 13 episodes, and I’m definitely hoping there’s another season one day.

I saw HOB on the soon to be defunct Animelab, and while the subtitles were far too small for my eyes, I’m glad they were there because without them I would not have been able to watch the show at all. (There were mythological elements and context that I missed too, especially those last few episodes I suspect).


The ending to episode 12 kinda demanded an OVA or a ‘special’ because while it wrapped the action plot, the relationship between Xie Lian and San Lang needed more screen time, which did happen with #13 thankfully.

Definitely recommended for fans of the above-mentioned genres.

4 Stars

Ni no Kuni Review [Collaboration with Curtis from Iridium Eye Reviews]

Greetings! It’s collaboration time again, in this one Curtis from Iridium Eye Reviews and I are going to chat about 2019 portal fantasy Ni no Kuni – a film we both enjoyed without being blown away, perhaps.

(You can see one of our previous reviews in Satoshi Kon’s Tokyo Godfathers right here) Before we start, I have to say thanks to Curtis for some pretty impressive patience on this one, as it took me a bit longer than I’d hoped to get everything together 😀

Ashley: To kick things off I wanted to ask if you came to the film sort of ‘cold’ or whether you’d had a chance to play any games from the Ni No Kuni franchise? 

For me, I played Ni no Kuni: Wrath of the White Witch (2011) and was excited that Studio Ghibli did the cut scenes in that game, and so I went into the film expecting a certain aesthetic (which I definitely got, and really enjoyed). Having that little bit of background also took care of some world-building for me as a viewer too. I wondered if your first impressions of the film were influenced by the franchise or whether you had a more ‘clean slate’ viewing experience?

Ospreyshire/Curtis : I came into this movie cold. I have never played any of the games. All I knew was that Ghibli helped out in animating the game series, but that was pretty much it.

That’s cool with you having experience in playing this game. Studio Ghibli helping with a video game series is really cool as their skills could help a video game with the aesthetics as well as that animation company expanding their horizons in using their skills. This was purely a clean slate experience in going into this movie blind. As someone who has never played a game nor knowing anything about the world-building or exposition, I did feel like I was learning about the world much like the main characters.

I thought Ghibli was involved in the Ni no Kuni movie perhaps in a co-production or consulting role, but I was shocked to find out that OLM of all companies animated this film adaptation. Could’ve fooled me because it could pass as a Ghibli work (especially with the art, character designs, and Joe Hisaishi handling the music) instead of the same studio responsible for Gunsmith Cats, Yo-Kai Watch, and several installments of Pokemon of all things.

A: Wow, Gunsmith Cats and Ni no Kuni is a contrast 🙂

I feel the same, especially with Joe Hisaishi involved, yeah – it definitely feels like a Ghibli production in many ways, perhaps an industry they could have expanded even further into?

Here’s one of my fav questions – what jumped out for you in Ni no Kuni?

O: I know, right? I would’ve never guessed in a million years that they would’ve animated both.

I thought it was a Ghibli project going in with Joe Hisaishi and the character designs. This isn’t the first time I’ve had that feeling watching some anime projects this year. Maybe they could’ve expanded especially since they haven’t done that much in the late 2010s.

The animation and having a more mature story compared to most Ghibli works were interesting. Okay, I know this would still count as an isekai work, but it wasn’t a boring example of that genre. I legitimately wanted to know more about the world and the connections between there and earth. The alliances shifting in the second half did feel a bit intriguing.

A: I felt the same re: the changing alliances and the far less typical approach to the isekai formula.

I was interested in the way that the characters were tied to their world of origin, that vital storytelling notion of ‘cost’. An action taken by the characters has a consequence and I liked how the film resolved those issues.


O: Of course. I didn’t feel like I was watching some by-the-numbers Isekai work and there were some twists that I didn’t expect with the world building or how the characters were able to travel between worlds. It did keep me interested with the entire movie and as someone who didn’t play the games, I didn’t feel lost in any way. I thought the damsel in distress aspect did get avoided with the whole story not being about healing the princess. Even though that plot point did get awkward watching it in current times for obvious reasons, I didn’t think it was hampered by the modern world as much as let’s say (got to be brutally honest even though you know my thoughts on this) Weathering With You for example.

From an animation standpoint, this was one of the better OLM works especially if I legitimately thought it was a Ghibli movie. The animation flowed very well and the fight scenes had the right amount of fluidity to them. It felt like a movie and never felt like they were cutting corners here like they’ve done in previous works even on their best days.

A: Me too – I hadn’t put it together with all their Pokemon work say, but like you mention, the battles looked great and the buildings and cityscapes caught my eye, the sense of movement within or things like the horse charge Haru leads too.

I was a little surprised that it didn’t seem too well-received, many of the criticisms landing on it not delivering anything new. I don’t feel that originality is the most important metric out there.

For me, the film worked in part because it was familiar in terms of settings and tropes, and whatever elements were predictable in the plot didn’t bother me. I wanted to be satisfied more than surprised and while the visuals were beautiful and I was engaged with the characters (especially Yu) I was happy to go along with events.

Maybe there were exposition-heavy moments to drag things down a little but in the end I was probably most forgiving because I was keen to see how Yu and Haru’s friendship would withstand the tests it faces. It felt classic to me 🙂


O: There was certainly a ton of effort with the animation even with the little things shown in this movie.

Really? I’ve been doing my best to not look at other reviews for most of the things I watch unless it’s something I’ve previously seen before, but I wasn’t aware of the overall consensus. Ni no Kuni isn’t the most original anime which I do agree with, but it wasn’t a horrible watch nor did I feel like it was trying to copy others or coast on the Ghibli-affiliation with the video games even if I was mistaken thinking the studio animated the movie.

I certainly do my best to give my flowers when movies and series do something innovative, but there are times where the familiar can work. This wasn’t some avant-garde work, but it certainly wasn’t some genre-by-numbers dreck. I wanted to know who this was going to play out and how they’re able to go to different worlds or how Yu is able to use his abilities.

I agree the exposition got a bit much at times and the friendship between the characters had fascinating contrasts and good development as they’re both conflicted during the final act.

A: Sometimes after I’ve seen something I’ll try to seek (as best I can) a general consensus about how a film or show has been received and I very much find doing so to be a a double-edged sword 🙂

When I’m lucky I get some new insights or I pick up something I missed, but that doesn’t always happen. This time I was curious to see if people were writing about the movie in regard to disability representation. I don’t know how often Ni no Kuni got it ‘right’ when it came to portraying someone in a wheelchair, but I definitely had the sense that Yu was given proper thought and attention, especially in the earth-based scenes.

When I think about something the film didn’t deliver so well perhaps, one thing that comes to mind is maybe the Black Hooded Man, who seems a little inconsistent – or perhaps even constrained by the plot too easily (trying not to spoil certain plot points :D).

Did anything in particular strike you as a weak point? 

O: I’ve done that sometimes and it occasionally factors into my reviews. There were a few times (can’t remember which posts at the moment) where I mention the consensus and I compare/contrast with my thoughts against the masses…or at the very least Rotten Tomatoes and/or Metacritic.

You bring up an excellent point. You don’t see that many physically disabled characters in animated works. The only ones I can think of in the context of being wheelchair-bound are Pelswick, Prof. Xavier from the X-Men, and Garrett from Extreme Ghostbusters. I don’t know if I’m the most qualified person to talk about this issue, but from what I saw, Yu was a character who happens to be in a wheelchair instead of a wheelchair-using character. That makes a huge difference in the presentation. Sure, he’s clearly seen using it in the earth scenes, but his personality goes beyond that in both realms, so I do applaud that. I do wonder if Ni No Kuni would get attention from disability activists in portraying a character in that light.

Yeah, the Black Hooded Man came out of nowhere and didn’t have as much development. As I’m also trying to avoid spoilers, I did figure out his true identity by looking at the right signs. They did throw a decoy with that mystery, but I still figured it out even if it wasn’t exactly how I planned it. I could also mention how the revelation does play up a certain cliche with specific occupations, but I don’t want to give away the twist.

Outside of that issue, I did think some of the background characters didn’t get much development. It’s even more glaring in the fantasy world with so many characters of different colors, shapes, sizes, forms, and species around. Even if some had personalities, they were mainly there to show how different it is compared to earth.

One scene that I thought was very awkward was early on where those healers were trying to cure that disease by dancing or singing. Not only did it feel a bit random even if it made sense with the plot at that time, but am I the only person who thought the attire and presentation was a bit racially coded? If they were analogs of those in the East Indian or Middle Eastern communities (granted, the “earth” parallels aren’t bound by this [spoilers minimized]), then the creators should have re-thought things. I’m not saying it’s as bad as the crows in Dumbo or Mr. Popo from Dragon Ball Z for example, but that did make me raise an eyebrow there. Despite some of my issues with the more mainstream Ghibli movies where Hayao Miyazaki would be in the director’s chair, at least he would’ve really gone in detail with the world-building and have a sense of wonder. Ni no Kuni doesn’t feel like a typical Isekai work despite the obvious tropes, but they could’ve done better to stand out more. Those were a few flaws that came to mind. How about you?

A: I know what you mean about the twist and reveal there, I felt the same re: being confident that I knew who but not why precisely.

Those are good points that I’d missed, yeah. Nothing new comes to mind now that I think about it… maybe a touch more on the old man, who is probably meant to be Oliver from the game. On the other hand, maybe it’s more fun to leave open a hint of doubt!

O: Glad I’m not alone in noticing that. Sure, how it played out was a good twist, but the result was quite obvious for me.

Thanks. As someone who wasn’t familiar with the original video games, I will say that it was a decent entry into that series and I’ve certainly seen far worse examples of video game adaptations in film or TV series, so Ni no Kuni has that going for it. This not-Ghibli movie was fine, but certainly not a masterpiece in my opinion. Thanks for collaborating with me again! It’s always a pleasure having someone to team up with to review some anime.

A: My pleasure! (Am already thinking about another collab for the future :D)

Adjustable points:

Pros/add

-Add 1 point if you like classic hero stories
-Add 1-2 points if you’re a fan of fantasy anime.

Cons/subtract

-Subtract 1 point if you need a truly memorable villain
-Subtract 1-2 points if you’re not into isekai plots.

Score:
3.5 out of 5 (Ashley/The Review Heap)
3.5 out of 5 (Ospreyshire/Curtis)

Blade of the Last Phantom Master (Shin Angyō Onshi)

Blade of the Last Phantom Master (Shin Angyō Onshi) 2007

Here is another anime that has me quite curious about the manga.

Set in lands reminiscent of ancient Korea, Blade of the Last Phantom Master follows anti-hero Munsu as he roams around fighting tyranny. And while he is utterly committed to that, his methods often grant him that label of ‘anti-hero’, perhaps along with his curt manner which is tempered by compassion.

The film does pander a little to the fantasy/supernatural genre’s expectation for violence and I guess you could made a case for Chun Hyang’s costume being an expression of the same expectation, but it’s hardly constant. (As I’ve probably said before, endless fan-service tends to bug me but Blade of the Last Phantom Master doesn’t feel like that kinda movie).    

I don’t really have much to mention in terms of aspects I didn’t enjoy – but I could see the structure of the film being an issue for some viewers perhaps, as Blade of the Last Phantom Master is one part the story of how the two leads meet (Munsu and Chun Hyang) and one part their next adventure, combined into one film. In that sense, it’s an effective bit of marketing for the manga for sure but might not be to everyone’s taste.

Elsewhere I loved the painterly, at times softer backgrounds, especially in the travel montage and throughout, I was surprised at a few of the turns the story took. And more, having so little knowledge about Korean myths and stories, I loved seeing some interesting magical elements – especially the way paper was used.

On that note, I believe not everyone was happy with the Youn In-wan’s tonal shift in this adaptation of the beloved The Legend of Chun Hyang and so I’m keen to read more about it one day.

Blade of the Last Phantom Master makes good use of its two villains too, along with the supporting cast. I should add, that even though master swordswoman Chun Hyang is a co-lead, she doesn’t really get many lines and so again, the sense that this is an opener to a much longer story is clear there too.

I can’t finish the review without mentioning the CGI, which is pretty well integrated to my eye, it definitely feels like both the Japanese and Korean studios (Oriental Light and Magic and Character Plan) put in a lot of care an attention there.

And finally, as a quick observation, I found it fascinating that Munsu seems to carry and use an inhaler – something I haven’t seen in a whole lot of anime.

5 Stars

Murder Princess (Mādā Purinsesu)

Get ready for fantasy, sci-fi, political intrigue, romance, action, comedy and prominent use of the body swap trope, if you decide to take a look at Murder Princess.

Maybe that seems like bit much for one text – but I definitely liked the mix and thought this was a fun OVA. It’s not the shortest one out there, and it does tell a complete story across only 6 episodes too.

The series was released in 2007 and animated by Bee Train during their heyday and I don’t remember having many complaints re: the visuals or direction, though you won’t see the super-dynamic camera-work common to modern action anime.

As per the title, you can expect regular violence over the course of the betrayal of Princess Alita’s kingdom and her subsequent struggle for vengeance.

She manages to recruit some interesting folks and while there are a lot of familiar story-beats along the way, I was hooked by the body swap aspect which brought in a few fun ‘fish out of water’ moments.

However, one thing I did wish had been given some extra screen time was both Falis and Alita coming to terms with the switch, as it does play second fiddle to the action.

As an example, I imagine it would be pretty disconcerting to look at someone else and see your own face, see ‘you’ doing things from the outside, yet both leads adjust a bit too quickly perhaps.

Obviously it wasn’t a huge problem for me, but I do wonder whether the manga does more with that aspect?

Even though the star rating will probably seem a bit low, I still enjoyed Murder Princess – in particular Romi Park* as Falis, and remember the ED as standing out.

As I said before, this anime did leave me curious about the manga – and so maybe one day I’ll seek it out.

3.5 Stars

*Took me a moment to recognise her as the voice of Edward Elric, actually.

Highlander: The Search For Vengeance

Highlander: The Search For Vengeance lands somewhere between spin-off and remake of the very famous 1986 Christopher Lambert film Highlander, a movie Queen fans may also remember due to its OST.

Highlander: The Search For Vengeance (2007)

I’m not really planning to do a comparative review so I’ll just say that I agree with what seems to be the general consensus out there, that among all the Highlander texts following the original, this is among the better ones.

In terms of genre, Highlander: The Search for Vengeance is a post-apocalyptic, science-fantasy action film from top to bottom, with top notch animation (Madhouse and Imagi Animation) that follows Colin MacLeod through the centuries on his quest for revenge.

And it is a classic (or ‘basic’ if you’re not a fan) revenge story with Colin hacking his way through various obstacles on a path toward his ages-old enemy Marcus Octavius, at times taking a break for war or love or perhaps just gratification – and as this is an anime take on the franchise, get ready for plenty of fan-service.

The non-linear structure to Colin’s search adds an extra layer to the narrative, weaving in and out of the past and future as we see him fight and struggle and even repeat some costly mistakes in different historical eras.

I’d have loved to see a little more from Colin’s memories of the 20th Century for one, but what existed served the overall picture of a battle throughout history.

It seems that when Yoshiaki Kawajiri is working with US production companies there’s a toning down of onscreen sex and violence compared to his other work, yet not a removal.

So you’ll still get explosions, decapitations, nudity and even (in this film) a presumably romantic sex scene, much like what could be seen in an 1980s/1990s action or thriller film. (Thus, in terms of audience it’s obviously not aimed at kids).

A few quick dot points before I finish:

  • I’m a fan of Yoshiaki Kawajiri’s character designs and this anime is no exception
  • I do love imaginings of the future and cities in various states of decay (in fiction, at least) and so the New York setting was a highlight for me
  • Colin probably isn’t perhaps as multi-faceted as some other leads in the film, so you might find a fav side-character instead
  • If you’re exhausted from and furious about COVID and can’t stomach another virus subplot, then I’ll note this does feature one

Overall, I enjoyed the structure, the action and the scaling up of problems for our hero to face, all of it interwoven with backstory and some memorable leads too (not only Moya, who probably doesn’t have enough screen time to be called ‘lead’, I guess).

If you like the genre in general, or you’re a fan of the original movie, you’ll find this both a little different and very familiar, which could be a mark for or against, I suppose.

4 Stars

Not a lot of green at all in the film and so the small amount combined with the pink in Dahlia’s apartment really stands out

The Wonderland (Bāsudē Wandārando) 2019

Even as I type this, I’m sick of my own go-to thought being something like ‘compare this one to Ghibli’, because that’s lazy of me.

Moreover, Studio Ghibli hasn’t released a non-CGI feature for six years or so. And nor do they own ‘awe and whimsy’. No studio does, of course! (Having said that, I know Wonderland has been compared to Ghibli and Miyazaki films in particular.)

But it is different in terms of tone and execution.


The Wonderland is an old-school portal fantasy (or ‘Isakei’ to use the anime lingo) where characters are led into a fairy-tale world (rather than a game), which makes sense considering that it’s based on a children’s story from 1988*.

And the world that Akane and her aunt must save is a real draw for me since it’s got plenty of surprises and fun, whimsical settings, characters and moments. There’s also a classic ‘reluctant hero’ plot and it’s nice to see Akane quickly become less selfish as the story progresses.

(Of course, there’s an understandable reluctance – being asked to save a magical world you never knew existed would be worrisome to say the least).

As much as I enjoyed most of the film, there was something missing from the narrative. Perhaps strong ties to the central problem Akane is being asked to solve? Or maybe I wanted more from the villain too?

Still, the art and animation was beautiful and Chii was an interesting addition to the leads, and so I didn’t mind. And there were funny moments to balance the menacing ones too (without spoilers) like with Akane and the cats or Hippocrates’ transformation.

The Wonderland is aimed at younger audiences but it’s not G-rated either, so there’s violence but I don’t actually remember blood. Having noted the target audience, I found it interesting that an adult from the real world was allowed to come along for the adventure, which is kinda rare in YA fiction.

Directed by Keiichi Hara, (Miss Hokusai), this adaption was only released a few years ago now but I don’t remember hearing about it, not back then and not very often now either. I’m curious if anyone else had a chance to see it?

Maybe 4 Stars is a little generous in terms of a rating but for me, in a visual medium the visuals sometimes make up for other issues 😀

*Chikashitsu Kara no Fushigi na Tabi (Strange Journey from the Basement) by Sachiko Kashiwaba

Yasuke

Yasuke (2021)

Let me preface this review by saying that I will watch more of Yasuke.

I did find that the scope of events in the latter half quickly outstripped the amount of episodes allocated to the season, resulting in a pretty rushed feel which left me feeling a little cold toward the show.

If Netflix would simply stand by their creators and not rush out a handful of episodes at a time, maybe it’d be easier for shows to pace their storytelling, to give characters and events room to breathe/develop. (Of course, I don’t know if that is actually what’s happening).

But stepping away from possible production issues, I didn’t need much convincing to try this short anime at all – samurai, supernatural stuff, outsider lead character, all things that I tend to enjoy.

And enjoy them I did. Most of the action was great and while there were times where the dialogue didn’t land for me, the range of character designs and colour palettes balanced that out.

While I didn’t go in seeking historical fiction from the anime, I did really enjoy the flashback portions of the story. In fact, Yasuke’s backstory became more compelling than the main storyline at one point, and I would have watched more in that vein for sure.

That’s not to knock the mentor relationship between Yasuke & Saki but there was a lot about other characters that didn’t work for me.

An example of that would be the sense that Achoja and co were meant to be rogues that come around to the side of the good guys when faced with a bigger evil, and yet the narrative sort of jammed them and their flat banter into events then did away with them before giving enough time to get to know or care about them.   

Maybe I misread the purpose of those characters in the narrative?

As much as I liked the variety in character designs, Saki did sometimes have a little of an ‘adult face in kid’s body’ look and Father Abraham reminded me a bit too much of Anthony Hopkins. Minor things, but I noticed them.

For me, the first few episodes feel like a great beginning to a pretty epic story.

The next ones less so, but I’m still keen to see what happens next with future seasons should they appear and ended up preferring Yasuke over Cannon Busters.

3 Stars

(I should mention that the OST by Flying Lotus really stands out too.)

Gingitsune

Gingitsune (2013)

Okay, time for a short-ish review!

I know I’ve said this before, but sometimes I dislike using the word ‘sweet’. Mostly because I worry that it has dismissive connotations or that it suggests a lack of tension, or stakes. And that’s not the case in Gingitsune for me.

Maybe ‘feel-good’ or ‘uplifting’ is better for a description of tone in this short series? If I was pressed in terms of genre (beyond supernatural or fantasy) I’m thinking of that blurred line between Slice of Life and Drama.

The main draw for me was the grumpy-but-caring Gintaro (messenger to the fox god Inari) and his relationship with heroine Makoto, the young shrine maiden. Their quarrels and triumphs were great and Gintaro’s obsession with oranges was always funny.

I also enjoyed the Shinto aspects. I’m not very familiar with that cultural aspect of Japan at all and so it was great to learn a little about it, even in the fictionalised context of an anime.

Notwithstanding the tediously jealous Hura, the characters are all cute and fun and I liked the episodic nature of the stories too, along with those beautiful backgrounds – of which I’ve shared only a few.

So, if any of the above sounds like your thing and you’ve not come across Gingitsune before then consider finding it because I reckon it’s pretty great 🙂

4 Stars

Ride Your Wave (Kimi to, Nami ni Noretara)

A quick review for Ride Your Wave (Kimi to, Nami ni Noretara) 2019.

Romance is one genre that I don’t have a lot of knowledge about so I can’t compare Ride Your Wave to many other films but I definitely enjoyed it. Maybe in part due to the fantastical elements that supported the romance?

That said, the central romantic plot certainly has a few twists and turns and one complication seems like the kind that would definitely end a relationship… but without spoilers, Minato and Hinako do remain connected afterwards.

Throughout Ride Your Wave there’s plenty of drama, not too much angst and enough funny moments to balance out the sadder parts too. I also enjoyed the kinda gangly character designs, they stood out for me, adding to the sense of characters fumbling through their relationships.

I do remember beginning to see Yōko as a complete villain but she’s not one dimensional.

At the end, there’s a big, pretty exciting final set-piece and it really extends the surf theme while neatly marrying in the fire-fighting – probably my other favourite aspect. (And the summer setting is both warm, bright and most welcome when I think back on it, especially as winter is really digging in here at the moment).

I haven’t seen much by Masaaki Yuasa yet (just ‘Happy Machine’ from Genius Party), and I really enjoyed Ride Your Wave, so I will definitely seek out some of his other films now too.

4 Stars